Reading Assignment

Guidelines for these skills

1.       Generally, keep paragraphs short.

2.       Make sure the change in thought is clear to the reader.

3.       Include only one idea in each paragraph, or show the clear development from one idea to another.

Explicit business writing uses paragraphs to help readers see blocks of ideas.  A paragraph is marked with a blank line or blank characters before the block of text.  The blank space signals to the reader that a thought has ended and another is beginning. 

Paragraphs help readers shift their thinking as they read.  However, readers must know the direction of the change in thought.  To communicate the change clearly, open most new paragraphs with a statement explaining the shift.  This sentence is called a topic sentence.

Use the same guidelines for paragraphs that you do for other blocks:  connect and define.  Connect the concept to preceding concepts.  Define the concept within the paragraph.

Generally, keep paragraphs short.

When you start a new thought, break for a new paragraph regardless of the number of lines or sentences in the paragraphs.  emails, letters, and memos should normally have paragraphs averaging around five lines.  Try not to go beyond five lines and rarely go to seven or more lines.  Reports should have paragraphs averaging seven lines, but a small number of paragraphs may as long as ten or twelve lines.   This paragraph, for example, has seven lines and five sentences.

The easiest way to adjust paragraph length is to write the paragraph, then look at it to see how long it is.  When it is longer than five lines in an email, letter, or memo, or longer than seven lines in a report, look for a change in thought to be sure you're creating clear blocks of information. 

Don't try to make all paragraphs five lines or seven lines.  Use the length as a guideline to look for changes in thought.  An average of five or seven lines means some paragraphs may occupy one line and some may even have ten lines. 

However, if the sentences belong together to maintain the focus on a thought, use as many lines as are necessary for the paragraph.  Try not to have several long paragraphs in a document.  That shows that you aren't identifying changes in thought, and it will make the text too dense.

Don't be afraid of one-sentence paragraphs.  They are appropriate for business documents.  However, if you have a series of one-sentence paragraphs, the paragraphs won't help the reader organize the thoughts and the text will seem disjointed.

Make sure the change in thought is clear to the reader.

Always make sure the change in thought is clear to the reader.  The most important way to make the change in thought clear is to examine the key term from the previous thought and key term from the next thought.  Think of the key terms as the threads that hold the fabric of your business writing together.

Use one of these devices at the beginning of the paragraph:

·    First choice: If there is a major change in thought, write a statement at the beginning of the paragraph explaining the change in thought.  Include the key term that connects the new thought to the previous one or the central idea.  The key terms are bolded in these statements for this illustration:

Another reason for the decrease in revenue is . . .

These qualities in a manager are not as important as . . .

·    Second choice: If the change is too obvious for a statement, try to include a transition that makes the change in thought clear.

In addition, the new building will . . .

However, we will still need to consider . . .

Without the transition, the reader would have to guess at the relationships between your points or read all the text to figure out the relationship.  In explicit business writing, never require the reader to put the pieces together on her own; present the entire picture already assembled.

Include only one idea in each paragraph, or show the clear development from one idea to another.

Limit paragraphs to one idea.  When you seem to be changing ideas, decide whether the next idea fits in the same paragraph with the previous idea.  If the reader needs to see the ideas as a close unit, or you are developing the paragraph from the opening concept to a conclusion, you may keep them together.  Otherwise, if a new idea is clearly different, break for a new paragraph to separate the ideas.

As you evaluate your paragraphs, name each using the key term that states the central thought.  That key term should appear near the beginning.  If you see more than one idea in the key terms that appear in the paragraph, decide whether you have two concepts that you should separate.

Example

The following paragraph is too long.  The writer should look at the key terms to see where it can be broken into smaller blocks.  The key term for the paragraph is "office/clerical has been the fastest growing sector."  The key terms for the thoughts that follow are bolded.  You will see the natural places to make new paragraphs because they are at the points where new key terms appear.

During the past 40 years, the office/clerical sector has been the fastest growing sector in the marketplace.  That occurred in spite of a slowdown in growth the office/clerical sector experienced during 1994-98.  Temp agencies reported that revenues for office/clerical temps, as a percent of total staffing revenues, declined from an estimated 23.9 percent in 1992 to 16.5 percent in 1998.  Even though growth rates declined, the office/clerical sector experienced a 52 percent increase in revenues from 1992 to 1998, increasing from an estimated $8.9 billion in 1992 to $17.1 billion in 1998.  The office/clerical sector outperformed every other staffing sector except for technical/IT and professional-employer organizations.  In regards to new jobs created, the office sector contributed almost half of the 69 million jobs created from 1950 to 1995, and 59 percent of those created from 1979 to 1995.  The office sector is also the fastest growing sector for total jobs available in the marketplace, comprising 41 percent of the current workforce.  The length of assignments for temporary office/clerical assignments is increasing as well, though some experts disagree on whether the days of the short, fill-in assignment are numbered.  For example, TotalTemps' senior vice president, Ben Bradley, maintains that “The old ‘replacement secretary' to cover a two-week vacation order has disappeared.” However, Longman Staffing Services’ public relations director, Gena Rome, believes that “The days of shift fill-in assignments aren't over, but the average assignment is now for months, not days.” Gone or not, though the traditional image of the office has undergone a significant transformation over the years, office/clerical workers remain a vital part of the workforce.

The new key terms appear at around seven to eight lines into the new paragraphs, so it is apparent that the long paragraph should be broken up into these shorter paragraphs:

During the past 40 years, the office/clerical sector has been the fastest growing sector in the marketplace.  That occurred in spite of a slowdown in growth the office/clerical sector experienced during 1994-98.  Temp agencies reported that revenues for office/clerical temps, as a percent of total staffing revenues, declined from an estimated 23.9 percent in 1992 to 16.5 percent in 1998. 

Even though growth rates declined, the office/clerical sector experienced a 52 percent increase in revenues from 1992 to 1998, increasing from an estimated $8.9 billion in 1992 to $17.1 billion in 1998.  The office/clerical sector outperformed every other staffing sector except for technical/IT and professional-employer organizations. 

In regards to new jobs created, the office sector contributed almost half of the 69 million jobs created from 1950 to 1995, and 59 percent of those created from 1979 to 1995.  The office sector is also the fastest growing sector for total jobs available in the marketplace, comprising 41 percent of the current workforce. 

The length of assignments for temporary office/clerical assignments is increasing as well, though some experts disagree on whether the days of the short, fill-in assignment are numbered.  For example, TotalTemps' senior vice president, Ben Bradley, maintains that “The old ‘replacement secretary' to cover a two-week vacation order has disappeared.” However, Longman Staffing Services’ public relations director, Gena Rome, believes that “The days of shift fill-in assignments aren't over, but the average assignment is now for months, not days.”

Gone or not, though the traditional image of the office has undergone a significant transformation over the years, office/clerical workers remain a vital part of the workforce.

When you write, look at key terms in the first sentence of each of your paragraphs and key terms in the last sentences.  If they are not clearly related to each other, you may have more than one idea per paragraph.  Use that as a sign you should check the focus of the paragraphs in your email, memo, letter, or report.

Example

Looking at the key terms in the first sentence and last sentence in the next paragraph will signal to you that either the topic has changed or the writer is developing an idea from the first thought to the last.  The key terms are bolded for this illustration.

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities.  For cultural, social, and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality.

The first sentence seems to indicate that this is the "community's population" paragraph.  However, the second sentence doesn't fit that.  It contains the "higher rates of preventable health issues" key term.  The writer would have to decide whether they are two unrelated concepts requiring two different paragraphs, or whether he is building toward a conclusion.  If the writer is building toward a conclusion, he must guide the reader from the first key term to the second.  That requires a transition from the "population diversity" concept to the "higher rates of health issues" concept.

A transition, bolded for this example, takes care of the problem:

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities.  This diversity in population results in more residents having health issues because, for cultural, social and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality..